By Cruce Saunders
Augmented reality (AR) will likely touch each of our professional lives and the content we develop in the foreseeable future. It is critical that we develop plans to intelligently address this upcoming content output from the beginning, and that we don’t develop more content silos in the process. AR has a significant impact on our quality assurance efforts, product and experience testing, and automated troubleshooting. By implementing AR effectively, we can ensure that it will have a place in the intelligent, modular content ecosystem and be a valuable asset to content engineers.
Investigating the Landscape of Augmented Reality for Technical Communication
Augmented reality (AR) is not all black goggles, gaming, and consumer applications. This emerging technology applies to the technical communication sector more than you might think.
Our goal in the content and communication profession is to deliver the right content as seamlessly as possible. Because augmented reality superimposes content over real-world environments, we are getting even closer to meeting users where they are.
A 2017 issue of Time Magazine predicted that “in 10-15 years augmented reality and virtual reality are going to become the primary use for computer interactions.” Ambitious sounding, but new modes of interaction gain adoption every single day. The rate at which both conversational interfaces and wearables have become part of our everyday lives has been astounding. With lower costs and improved technology, augmented reality is certainly on the same path.
These advancements have led to new, more practical uses for AR. Several new applications for this technology will likely emerge in the content space:
- Quality assurance
- Product or experience testing
- Automated troubleshooting
With that said, organizations in the content space need to strategize for how they’re going to address this new delivery channel in an intelligent way, without constructing yet another content silo.
To get insight into the current and future state of AR, I talked to experts from organizations that are already leveraging this technology. We discussed how they are using AR, where they are in the process, what they’ve discovered, and how to best include AR in an intelligent content framework.
More Than a Future Prediction: The State of AR Today
AR is here, and it’s already transforming the technical content landscape. Farhad Patel and the technical documentation team at Huawei have made considerable progress in developing practical documentation solutions using AR.
Many of the products from Huawei’s Enterprise and Carrier product lines involve servers, routers, cabinets, CPUs, and other devices that require documentation for installation or replacement tasks. With certain products, support staff needed to perform many installations or repairs per day. Also, training and ramp-up time for field staff needed to be reduced. Shorter training time and greatly reduced documentation volume were called for, even with increased product complexity.
The Huawei team saw AR as a game-changer for achieving of these goals. Patel explored how to make some critical installation or repair procedures foolproof.
In a YouTube video titled “Huawei SUN2000-25KTL – AR in Information Products,” Huawei demonstrates how AR is enhancing their installation and maintenance operations. In this scenario, a field technician holds his tablet up to his work area. Technical instructions appear, step by step, at the bottom of the screen. In addition, support graphics are overlaid onto the tablet to help the user identify the correct object, demonstrate the action needed to complete the step, and offer on-demand support features.
As the video suggests, “real-time, contextual access to information leads to higher efficiency.”
How Do AR Solutions Work?
There are many different approaches to AR, depending on the required solution.
Typically, the user sees live images of an object (product) through a mobile device (often a smartphone or tablet). The AR software on the device identifies and interprets live images by searching and comparing them with images stored in a local or remote database. Once matches are found, the AR device will simultaneously display or superimpose the digital content associated with a particular image.
This process continues seamlessly as the user changes orientation or moves around and as new images (people, places, or objects) come within range of the sensors (in this case, a camera). Superimposed content seamlessly changes on an as-needed basis to match what the user is seeing.
A simplified definition of the technology and hardware components behind a typical AR solution includes these items:
- QR codes
- 2D image tracking
- 3D edge-based tracking
- Simultaneous Localization And Mapping (SLAM)
Lessons Learned: Some Surprises for Early Adopters
Early adopters are learning the hard lessons for us as they explore new content territory. Those working with augmented reality report some unique—and not-so-unique—challenges they face when embarking on these projects. Here are some points of advice and best practices to keep in mind.
- Identify what documentation can be converted into an AR experience with relative ease.
- Carefully select products that are capable of image tracking, and consider surface shine or lighting that current cameras can’t deal with.
- Schedule for a longer-than-normal planning phase.
- Prepare content creators to deal with screen layout and display location of imposed images to keep a tracked object in view.
- Begin with a storyboard to illustrate each progressive view to develop a list of concepts or steps to provide.
- Be prepared to make more iterations than in traditional documentation and to master new testing routines that involve space, time, motion, and image tracking.
- “Thin down” digital assets to account for large file sizes and the pressure on power and computing resources. 3D models must also be thinned down to remove any proprietary information.
The strategists that we talked to emphasized how important it is avoid being distracted by the tools themselves or by a “sexy demo” pilot project. Instead, focus on measurable business objectives, and choose your documented product and project wisely—preferably with steps that have been tested beforehand to reduce project development time.
Promising Results Encourage More Exploration
With significant challenges come significant benefits. Some customer case studies have documented 35 percent efficiency gains for new staff performing complex installations when using AR instead of traditional documentation. Early adopters are seeing other benefits:
- Classroom training has been drastically reduced—and in some cases, eliminated.
- The amount of text involved is substantially reduced, because information is delivered in context.
- Tasks can be significantly simplified, making it possible for less-skilled labor to perform some installations.
- Remote support is facilitated, because off-site staff can view what the user is viewing on their device, and annotations can be made on-screen by remote staff.
- The end user rarely needs to use search, as AR will push relevant visual content to the user based on context.
- AR can be used in QA due to superior camera tracking technology (vs. the human eye). Some customers are able to use AR cameras for testing procedures.
How Can We Prepare for AR?
Organizations use AR to deliver an in-context experience, rather than multi-channel documentation. As such, special consideration is needed to prepare content for intelligent delivery.
The screen real estate in many AR environments is dramatically smaller, so the text must be limited and positioned so that it does not obscure live, real-time images. Therefore, content needs to be divided into even smaller chunks to accommodate many AR displays.
In addition, content engineers need to prepare to carefully update their Master Content Model to accommodate the following new dimensions:
- Image tracking
- Variable user viewpoints
With those elements in place, a short description tag in DITA specific to AR is assigned. During content creation, the content creator can decide which chunk should be delivered where and can wrap them in the appropriate tags. Then it is possible for a publishing system to push that content to the AR environment.
This might not only require new skills for content creators to master, but also a somewhat different mindset about how to view content while authoring.
What’s on the Horizon?
Technology growth in sectors like artificial intelligence and machine learning are already helping to reduce the cognitive load that prevents humans from being more creative and productive workers.
Serving content in context through AR would be a tremendous step forward past the page-centric ecosystem that many technical communication practitioners (and customers) are struggling with.
Augmented reality is becoming an everyday reality sooner than we think. We must learn from the pioneers and adventure-seekers that thrive in our industry and begin now to educate ourselves about the opportunities and challenges that await us in this new arena.
Bajarin, Tim. (2017) “This Technology Could Replace the Keyboard and Mouse.” Time Magazine. http://time.com/4654944/this-technology-could-replace-the-keyboard-and-mouse/.
“Huawei SUN2000-25KTL – AR in Information Products.” YouTube video, 2:18, posted by “inglobe,” 10 October 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wA6gHm5uvus.
Patel, Farhad. (2018) Personal interview at Huawei, Inc., Dallas, TX.
Simple [A]. (2018) Mastering the Master Content Model™. https://simplea.com/Publications/Whitepapers/master-content-model.
CRUCE SAUNDERS (firstname.lastname@example.org), Founder and Content Engineer at [A](simplea.com), has 25+ years leading initiatives across customer experience, content, semantics, digital transformation, and content technology. You can connect with Cruce on Twitter @mrcruce.